Four years ago, United were in a similar situation as they were in yesterday, with the Premier League title already secured heading into the final day of the season and a visiting opponent facing the drop.
On that occasion, West Ham came to Old Trafford needing at least a point to escape relegation, and thanks to Carlos Tevez’s goal right before halftime, the Hammers received the result they needed and then some.
That day, United didn’t field their best starting lineup, even though Edwin van der Sar and Wayne Rooney both started and Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, and Paul Scholes all came on in the second half, and the focus was likely not as high could have been, with nothing tangible to play for.
This time around, Blackpool came in needing the right result against United and favorable results elsewhere to secure survival, but there were no favors to be done yesterday.
And while the Blackpool contingent at Old Trafford were left brokenhearted at the final whistle yesterday, it was a day full of celebration for the overwhelming majority of those in attendance, as United capped off the Premier League season in style, coming back in the second half for the second time this season against Blackpool to end the campaign almost perfect at home.
There are many who hoped that Ian Holloway’s side would be able to stay up this season, and I can count myself as one of them. Not only did they produce some of the most entertaining football in the Premier League and exceed expectations with a squad severely lacking in Premier League experience, but they shied away from no one.
That included mighty Manchester United, proving to be far less of a whipping boy than many might have expected them to be.
Such things are deserving of respect, and that’s part of why many were hoping to see Blackpool make a great escape on Survival Sunday.
But it has to be said that their glaring holes at the back very well necessitated their attacking approach, and that proved to be their fatal flaw not once, but twice against United this season and overall for their hopes of avoiding their eventual fate, a quick return to the Championship.
Blackpool’s cause might well have been helped had Fergie chosen to field a truly weakened side, but it had already been confirmed well in advance that wouldn’t be the case, with the most important inclusion being Edwin van der Sar, making his final competitive appearance at Old Trafford.
As if the inclusions of Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Park Ji-Sung, Nani, and Dimitar Berbatov in the starting lineup didn’t highlight United’s intent to end the Premier League campaign with a win, having Rio Ferdinand, Antonio Valencia, and Wayne Rooney on the substitutes’ bench should have.
Some could consider such moves as risky, with the Champions League final to look ahead to, but in my opinion, it was the right move, and not just for the sake of appeasing anyone who felt United would field a side that could give Blackpool some sort of advantage.
Sure, it was the perfect opportunity to give some bit-part players some extended time, but with the showdown with Barcelona looming, it’s best to keep the pedal to the floor, keep hold to that winning mindset and go your hardest. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for being able to finish unbeaten and nearly untied at home, and for being able to give the fans full return for their investment, outside of the chance to share in the title celebrations.
Besides, Blackpool were able to hold their own with a strong United side back in January, so they didn’t exactly need Fergie to be considerate of their needs with his selections.
And as one should have expected, Blackpool came out with intent as well, and less than a minute had passed when they had a glorious opportunity to take a priceless lead. Unfortunately for them, Keith Southern failed to make the most of it, and as can be the case, it came back to haunt them, thanks to those aforementioned defensive deficiencies.
Park’s tireless energy is why he’ll likely be in the starting lineup against Barcelona, and it also helped him put United ahead in the 21st minute, as he took full advantage of Ian Evatt’s inability to stay upright and clear Berbatov’s pass into the area.
Were it an important match, there’d be a lot more uproar about being denied a clear penalty when Park was sent tumbling in the area by Charlie Adam, especially if the culprit in that situation stepped up and scored a momentum-changing goal as Adam did shortly before halftime.
It looked like the tide had completely turned when Blackpool took the lead in the 55th minute on Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s fine flick (hey, if you’re going to go down, go down with style, right?), but that would prove to be the highest point for the visitors, who were safe at that point, but not for long.
It certainly appears that Anderson has been taking some extra shooting practice, or he’s finally unleashing his inner striker, but he had the kind of perfect placement and touch on his 63rd minute equalizer that many a striker would be envious of. With three goals in his last two starts, he’s ending the season on a high note, and it gives him something to build off of for next season, which will be the one that determines whether or not his future lies at United.
In the end, even 2-2 wouldn’t have been enough to save Blackpool, but any hope of a win went out of the window when Evatt’s forgettable day was capped off by sending an attempted clearance into his own net to put United ahead with a quarter of an hour left. Fortunately, he won’t have to look at it as ‘the’ goal that sent his side down, not only because of the results that Wigan and Wolves achieved but because Michael Owen put the result completely beyond Blackpool’s reach with 10 minutes left with a finish that hearkened back to the good ol’ days when he was as fit as a fiddle and suiting up for the enemy. If that was the last we see of Owen in a United shirt, it makes you wonder what he could have been able to do had injuries not curtailed his opportunities last season and this season, because the man clearly still has something to offer.
It is indeed unfortunate that we had a hand in sending a likable side with a likable manager back to the second tier, but that’s the nature of the game sometimes, and hopefully Blackpool will use this season as motivation to do what it takes to bounce back immediately. Besides, over the course of a 38-game season, there are enough opportunities to accrue the results needed for survival, so while they did overachieve to even have a chance at survival, they missed chances prior to Sunday (i.e., the previous fixture between these two) to pick up the points that would have allowed them to avoid all of the last-day drop drama.
As for United, the day couldn’t have been any better. Along with wrapping up an astounding home record and giving EVDS a winning home finale, the win sees United finish nine points clear in the final Premier League table, our biggest winning margin since claiming the title by 10 points over Arsenal in the 2000/01 season.
More importantly, much more importantly, we made it through the day without any key players suffering any injury worries that would’ve made many question Fergie’s selections (which they would’ve done if he hadn’t made those selections, but you can’t win with some people).
So then, what a season it’s been, and the best thing about it is that it’s not over yet.
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